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Isaac T. Hopper
Narrative of the Life of Thomas Cooper
New York: Published by Isaak T. Hopper, 1832.


According to the Narrative of the Life of Thomas Cooper, the man originally known only as "Notly" was born into slavery somewhere in Maryland. After fleeing to Philadelphia around the year 1800, Notly found work as a laborer under the name John Smith. He married and lived happily with his wife (whose name is not known) for many years until he was found and arrested by his former master. Making a quick escape, he returned to Philadelphia and hid in the home of a sympathetic white citizen. Fearing for his family's safety, he moved first to New Jersey, and then to Boston, where he changed his name to Thomas Cooper. In Boston, Cooper joined the Methodist Church and became a minister, making trips to the West Indies and Nova Scotia to preach. He was determined to go to Africa and made the trip with his family via Great Britain, where he was kindly received. After a few years in Africa, Cooper became "ill with the fever" and died, leaving behind his wife and children (p. 34). Abolitionist and women's rights advocate Lydia Marie Child notes that Cooper's wife and children returned to Philadelphia after his death.

The author of Cooper's Narrative, Isaac T. Hopper (1771-1852), was a Quaker abolitionist who, according to scholar H. Larry Ingle, also taught African American adults at a Philadelphia school. Hopper, who joined the Society of Friends at the age of twenty-two, was disowned by the Orthodox of Philadelphia for his alignment with rural followers of Elias Hicks, known as "Hicksites." Ingle explains that these rural Quakers resented the treatment they received from their more urban elders. Hopper was later disowned by the Hicksites for his attacks on an anti-abolitionist Quaker minister, but he remained dedicated to the Quaker way of life. Lydia Maria Child, who along with William Lloyd Garrison was often a guest in Hopper's home, wrote a biography of Hopper in which she details and applauds his work. Child's biography includes various stories she remembers hearing Hopper tell, including the one about Thomas Cooper, parts of which she seems to take verbatim from Hopper's Narrative.

Hopper begins his brief biography by stating that he is "well acquainted with Thomas Cooper . . . and can testify to his sobriety and general good character" (p. 4). He gives a brief description of Cooper's origins, stating that he was a slave in Maryland "until he was about twenty-five." He adds that "although [Cooper's] body was held in cruel bondage, his mind was free" (p. 5). Hopper offers little description of Cooper's escape from bondage, simply stating that "About the year 1800, Notly . . . left his master's service, and went to Philadelphia," where he was hired to work in a lumber yard (p. 6). Cooper assumes the alias John Smith and marries, but he is betrayed by a man who gains his trust, and his master quickly comes to reclaim him.

Cooper's Philadelphia employers "offered to pay a large sum of money for his freedom" out of sympathy for their employee and his family, but "no entreaties would avail with his cruel master" (p. 7). Instead, Cooper is handcuffed and tied "in the presence of his wife and children, who witnessed the horrid transaction with the utmost distress" (p. 8). Cooper urges his wife to keep the children in school and to dissuade them from idleness, fearing he will never see any of them again. Cooper is transported to Washington, D.C., where he is to be sold. However, Cooper uses his restraints to "trip up his master's heels" and runs for the woods (p. 11). He is pursued but escapes into a swamp and avoids recapture. Cooper finds the home of an acquaintance, who feeds him and helps "rid him of his fetters" (p. 13). Traveling only at night, Cooper returns to Philadelphia, sees his family briefly, and then goes into hiding in the house of "a respectable citizen, well known as the black man's friend, and whom we shall call Philo Christian" (p. 13).

Cooper is placed in a locked room for his safety, but his pursuers quickly discover his location while Philo is not at home. Philo returns as the men are attempting to find a way into the room, and he quickly evicts them. When the mayor calls Philo to his office to respond to the charges made by Cooper's master, Philo refuses to "inform against himself" and defies the mayor, arguing that no local magistrate will dare offer a search warrant for the home of a "man of reputation" (p. 17). After a week, a decoy is sent running out of Philo's house. The decoy is captured in an ambush and quickly released, but Philo appeals to the mayor and has the capturers arrested. After a second decoy escapes the house safely, Cooper leaves his hiding place and makes his way to nearby New Jersey, where he works for a farmer. Cooper spends several months "within about eight miles of his home" but nonetheless "in exile from it," as he does not wish to endanger his family (p. 21).

Cooper's master again learns of his location and makes plans to capture him in New Jersey. Philo warns Cooper of the plan and Cooper determines to defend himself. Rather than run, he loads his gun and awaits the arrival of his master. When three men arrive for Cooper, he calls out to them: "don't cross that fence, for the first man does, I will shoot him" (p. 25). While the men retreat to find assistance, Cooper flees to Boston. Once he finds work, Cooper calls for his family to join him.

After joining the Methodist church in Boston, Cooper quickly becomes "a popular preacher among them," serving his church in the West Indies and Nova Scotia before determining to go to Africa, "the birth place of his fathers" (p. 28). Cooper and his family first travel to London, where Cooper is received as "a man of much note, and preach[es] to large congregations" (p. 29). While in London, Cooper collects hymns into a volume for publication; his likeness is placed in the book "as a frontispiece" (p. 29). After a year and a half in Great Britain, Cooper and his family sail for Sierra Leone, where Hopper states Cooper finds great relief. "But this happy state was of but short duration," as Hopper notes, for Cooper contracts "the fever, which has so often proved fatal to strangers in that hot climate" (p. 34). He dies, leaving his family among strangers, but Hopper notes that they had comfort in the belief that Cooper had "now gone to a state of happiness, where the voice of the oppressor is heard no more" (p. 34).

Works Consulted: Child, Lydia Maria Francis, Isaac T. Hopper: A True Life, Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1853; Ingle, H. Larry, "Hopper, Isaac Tatem," American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000, referenced 30 March 2009.

Meredith Malburne

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